"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."
- Terence McKenna
Apocalypsopolis, book one
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January 25. I've come up with a really depressing theory of collapse. It was inspired by my perception -- which might be wrong -- that entertainment has become more authoritarian. It seems like half the TV shows now are about cops or FBI agents, or at least they're about people on the good side of the ruling system. Even in sci-fi and fantasy the heroes are usually serving the dominant power in their universe, and fighting against threats to that power. I feel like, if Star Wars were made now, Luke Skywalker would be recruited by the benevolent Empire and Darth Vader would be a space terrorist.
Whether or not that's true, this is definitely true: Trump supporters believe that crime is a huge and growing problem, even though crime rates are lower now than at any time from 1980-2010.
This leads to my doom theory: that public safety, as a political goal, is unstable and self-defeating. As a society gets more safe and predictable, incidents of danger and chaos are more uncommon, which amplifies them in public perception -- and amplifies them more than they've been reduced in reality. So the safer it is, the more dangerous it feels. This leads to a feedback loop, where 1) the world gets safer, 2) it feels more dangerous, 3) people demand more "law and order", and 4) return to step 1.
Where does this end? Psychologically we're already there: a massive cognitive dissonance, where people feel subconsciously that they're locked in a padded cell, while they feel consciously that they're being attacked from all sides. Now I understand why Trump called for "law and order" and also promised to "turn Washington upside down" -- and it worked! With these two completely opposite statements he was campaigning to both sides of the American cognitive dissonance, while rational politicians, who said the world is safe and we need to keep it the same way, were campaigning to neither.
What comes next? How does a leader make the world more dangerous while pretending to make it safer? One way is with political reforms that feel like a cleansing but have the effect of turning society into a war of all against all.
January 23. You probably heard about the Nazi getting punched. Whatever you think of it morally, it was brilliant public theater: while the official anti-Trump protests are massive and peaceful, at the edge they have an ally who is ready for surprising and precisely targeted violence.
Also it's fascinating that he got punched immediately after mentioning Pepe the Frog, so that Pepe is now associated with the punch more than with the Nazi. The message is that Pepe is not a static alt-right icon but a living apolitical trickster deity.
Sort of a new subject: earlier this month I wrote this about Trump's revolution: "If these are the anti-60's, then maybe I can look forward to the anti-80's." I didn't explain that at all, so here it is in more detail:
Original 60's: exciting bottom-up social revolution that overturned old values and encouraged people to drop out as individuals and form utopian ecological communities.
Trump anti-60's: exciting bottom-up social revolution that brought back old values and encouraged people to re-identify with the old warring mega-tribes. Anti-ecological and anti-utopian. (We're too soft and life should be hard.)
Original 70's: the decaying flower of the 60's, colorful and indulgent but it became clear that the underlying values were not working out.
Original 80's: full-scale backlash against some aspects of the 60's, in which people could stand up and say "I just want to make a lot of money and that's good."
So what I'm looking forward to, 10-20 years down the line, is an aggressive reversal of the least workable parts of Trumpism. We don't know what those are yet, but I'm hoping that nationalism becomes uncool, that people get tired of declaring war on exernal enemies (both of those happened in Germany), and that we stop trying to bring back jobs that sucked in the first place, get an unconditional basic income, and we can stand up and say "I just want to take recreational drugs and play games all day and that's good." (That's not a final destination for humanity, just the place I'd like us to go next.)
January 20. At the bottom of my rarely updated misc. page I have a Readings section with a few book excerpts and stuff that has vanished off the internet. Last month I added Richard Sorenson's classic anthropology paper, Preconquest Consciousness. I'm not going to try to summarize the inspiring collective consciousness he describes, but I disagree with two implications of the title: that this state was once nearly universal, and that once it's gone it can never come back.
I think it was never common, because prehistory was full of things that could disrupt it. And I think rebuilding something like it is not only possible but inevitable, given one difficult condition: enough time and space with no systemic coercion. The tribes that have it are not only free of violence from outside, they're also in regions where it's easy to live off the land, so there's no internal repression because anyone can just leave. I think we can do this on a global scale in a high tech society, if we keep trying, maybe in another ten thousand years.
Some personal stuff for the weekend. I'm working on a project that will probably reduce my blogging. And after learning that marijuana edibles give you more 11-OH-THC, which is stronger and more psychoactive than regular THC, I'm trying to use only edibles for a while. I have a jar of homemade cannabutter from a recipe based on this thread, and I just mix a quarter teaspoon in with some food in the early evening. After three or four nights I still get burned out and have to take a break, but the effects last longer and the withdrawal seems smoother.
Finally, some music. Even if you don't know the title, you've all heard Dick Dale's Misirlou. It's a cover of a traditional song, and I was listening to some other versions and found this primal Misirlu by an uncredited band (Rebetiko is the name of the style). I can't think of any other song with two versions that are so different and so good.
If Trumpism is apocalyptic, we should be careful. The charming idea that Trump's more outlandish proclamations have been cynical maneuvers to profit from the rage and unplugging of his movement can be rejected out of hand. Whatever else they may be, the charismatic leaders of millenarian movements are always the truest of true believers; typically they perish in the final bloodbath seemingly amazed that their vision has not, even in its ultimate crisis, manifested in their favor.
Taking a different angle, this article about Trump and reality TV argues that Celebrity Apprentice has stagnated while its founder took his next-generation understanding of entertainment into politics:
Trump, in his ability to get attention for himself, seems to understand something NBC does not: that as much as the audience may want to see real, authentically flawed people, it demands above all to be kept in suspense, to be tantalized with the promise (or threat) of things veering off script.
Trump sees politics as the highest form of entertainment, and he wants to take the story in crazy directions, but the difference is that political decisions affect real lives. Watching a shocking twist in a movie doesn't make you lose your house (that's more 23rd century). So there are two ways Trump can be a good president. One is to keep the spectacle to stuff that doesn't matter while making smart policy decisions, and I think he's already gone off that path. The other path is much more ambitious: to turn America upside down but in a fun way, so that most people like it better even as their lives are falling apart.
But this is less about what happens and more about how we personally react to it. I'm just going to assume that the coming chaos is not a passing storm but a return to normal.
January 16. A couple weeks ago this reddit comment explained how the term "fake news", which used to have a particular narrow definition, has grown into a confusing buzzword that blurs together a bunch of different things.
This exceptional comment takes it farther, explaining that modern propaganda works by getting you to believe nothing:
If they can get you to believe that all the news is propaganda, then all of a sudden propaganda from foreign-controlled state media or sourceless loony toon rants from domestic kooks, are all on an equal playing field with real investigative journalism. If everything is fake, your news consumption is just a dietary choice.
Okay, but who are "they"? Who is behind this phenomenon? Who benefits? Why is it happening now and not some other time?
I think it's a bottom-up movement. Humans aren't the only animal that makes mental maps, but we might be the only animal that sometimes makes our maps backward from what we want to believe instead of forward from evidence. If squirrels remember their nuts being buried in more convenient locations, they starve and die. And in the long term, humans and human cultures that veer off from reality are corrected or eliminated.
Where we've gone wrong is not having enough short-term correction. Look at all the lies that people continue to believe, and what they have in common is that wrong beliefs have no clear consequences. This is partly because the modern world is so complex that causes and effects are hard to trace. And it's partly because ordinary people have no fine-scale political power, so believing lies doesn't lead to bad stuff happening, until the public capacity for believing lies gets so big that it can be exploited by cynical leaders, and then a bunch of bad stuff happens at once.
January 13. How Video Games Satisfy Basic Human Needs. It's a great short article, but it limits itself to games and barely touches a bigger subject: that ordinary life is failing to satisfy basic human needs.
A 1996 article identified four personalities in multiplayer RPG's: Killers, Achievers, Explorers, and Socializers. I'm not much of a Socializer so I'll get that out of the way: information technology has remade the social landscape so that we have an abundance of brief, shallow, and distant connections, when human nature still craves deep and enduring local connections. That's why the most satisfying relationships in multiplayer games are with small, close, long-term groups.
I'm definitely an Explorer, and sometimes I think we need an information apocalypse, where all maps and records are destroyed and we start over, because it's much more fun to discover something first-hand than to read about it in a book. This could actually happen if everything is put in the cloud and the cloud crashes.
I also want to add a fifth type that's more common in single-player games: the Strategizer or Optimizer. It's where you have all the parts but the challenge is to put them together in the right way. Lately I've been satisfying this need through Windows Freecell and music playlists, and when I'm writing these posts I think a lot about how to put the ideas in the best order.
The tragedies of history have been done by Killers and Achievers. In the ancient world there were only a few Achievers leading armies of Killers. Then in the modern world, with the rise of the commercial class, achievement moved into economics and opened to more and more people. This trend peaked in the late 20th century, when accumulation of wealth and status became such a dominant cultural value that people with other values were marginalized as freaks and losers. Even science has been ruined by achievement, with the joy of exploration snuffed by the demand to publish more articles.
Now, with the end of growth, the exhaustion of resources, and the watering-down of status tokens, real achievement is once again limited to the lucky few. The rest of us face a void: achievement is unrealistic, exploring is down to the fiddly details, socializing is not what it used to be, and killing is increasingly forbidden.
What will fill that void? The big thing is the re-emergence of killing, from isolated mass shooters to political/religious armies to wars between nation-states. The too-small thing is more and better psychoactive drugs to turn exploration inward. And I don't know what's going to happen with video games. At one extreme they'll be destroyed by a tech crash, and at the other extreme they'll become the sole provider of psychological needs, with everyone in artificial worlds all the time.
My solution, which might become realistic in a few hundred years, is for society to be designed the way games are designed, for the moment-to-moment subjective joy of every player, even if that undermines the economic elite, even if it looks terrible to well-meaning bureaucrats. I wouldn't go all the way to the Kowloon Walled City but I think we need to go in that direction.
January 11. You probably heard that Meryl Streep bashed Trump at the Golden Globes, and she's not wrong. But she also made what struck me as a snobbish side comment, that mixed martial arts "is not the arts." I think the distinction between arts and not-arts is a fleeting cultural invention, while MMA belongs to a tradition so old and deep that you can see it in wild animals: real fighting constrained by rules that minimize serious injury.
Compare this trailer for the best film of the year, Moonlight, to this highlight video of the best fight of the year, Cub Swanson vs Dooho Choi. The film has way more emotional complexity, but the fight is more alive. If humans are still alive in a thousand years, we'll still have public fights, maybe more dangerous fights backed up by better medical tech, but film will have long since been replaced by something more unscripted or interactive (or at least creating that illusion).
Loosely related, a reader sends this awesome Stephen Colbert interview. There are a million spoken word videos out there, but the best kind is rare: a really smart person and you can see them thinking to come up with fresh answers to unexpected questions. His best points: that beliefs have no value without being challenged; that it's good for your team to lose because you question why you're on a team; that he became a better interviewer when he stopped holding a pen; and that Trump has a history of blaming others, but Americans don't like the president to do that.
January 9. This weekend I wrote a long email explaining why I don't believe in evil, and I want to post some of it here. We can start by looking at stuff we call "evil" and looking for deeper causes. I once had a guy tell me that religion is the root cause of evil, so I asked him "What's the root cause of religion?" He said "I'm not interested in that."
According to Christianity, God is perfectly good, and the root of evil is Satan. How did Satan become evil? He decided God was doing things the wrong way. So why did God banish Satan, instead of explaining why his way of doing things was better? I think this story comes from prehistoric tribal behavior, where people who violate the rules of the tribe are banished because the tribe doesn't have the resources to reform them. And sometimes the banished people are right, which is related to why some people think maybe Satan had the right idea.
So at the heart of Western culture we've got this story that takes the practical behavior of tribes, and recasts it as something mythic and moral and simple and absolute.
When children violate the rules of their culture, they are shamed, but again, this is economy disguised as morality. We don't have the resources to explain to children why the rules are this way, and sometimes the rules are wrong and the kids are right. And this habit, generating the illusion of morality out of our own lack of time and energy to actually work things out, carries over into the adult world. I once saw a guy at an anti-war march, standing on the curb facing the protesters, with a sign that just said "SHAME". Because he didn't explain himself better, I couldn't even tell which side he was on.
My point is that good vs evil is a way of putting off understanding. Everybody, from their own perspective, is doing something that makes sense, and when we think we see evil, it's because we haven't fully made sense of the other person's perspective. Even when someone says "I knew it was wrong but I did it anyway," they're talking about an inability to work things out inside themselves.
I'm not a moral relativist -- I'm an amoral taoist: I believe in an objective standard for correct and incorrect action, but we can never reach it; we can only approach it by looking more broadly and deeply into cause and effect. And to call something evil is to stall this process and imagine that we're already finished.
I also think there are mental states that are loosely correlated with what we call evil. One is compulsiveness, and another is "ego", which is hard to define but it could be another form of compulsiveness based around identity.
January 7. Instead of bashing Derrick Jensen I should have bashed my younger self. It's like I grew up in a bad (intellectual) neighborhood and I got out, and the nice thing to do is try to get other people out and not to condemn the people who still live there. The neighborhood is right at the intersection of complaining and trying to inspire people, and it's part of a larger neighborhood where people get fixated on stories that feel true instead of continuing to engage with reality as it unfolds into more challenging complexity.
I used to see the world as some kind of holy war, like things were in perfect balance, and then one time things got out of balance, and as soon as we get it back into balance we win the game. Now I'm seeing reality as an eternal journey through a magical forest, and we're just in a really weird part right now. I was watching one of those commercials for the latest pharmaceutical that cures one condition while causing others ("side effect" is a marketing term) and I thought, this is like some kind of trickster beast trying to lead us into deeper trouble. It's not even tragic -- it's funny: "Do not take Farxalus if you're allergic to Farxalus."
By the way, the show we were watching was Emerald City, which is surprisingly not bad. It's loosely based on The Wizard Of Oz but it's more like a trashy steampunk Game Of Thrones. One dude looks so much like Jon Snow that I started calling him Jon Frost, and the Witch of the West looks exactly like Tom Brady in drag.
January 5. I'm not feeling smart this week, maybe because the winter weather makes it hard to exercise. So today I'll post some stuff I've written over email. Marcus sends this documentary, The Inner Tracker, in which 21 hours of introspective dialogue among animal trackers was edited down to two hours. It's partly about people wondering if their own negative attitude toward modern society is actually part of the programming of modern society, which led me to write this:
Everyone wants to make the world better, and everyone wants simple inspiring stories, but there is no overlap between those two things. Donald Trump and Derrick Jensen are doing the same thing, serving as the focus and central myth maker for a bunch of people who are looking for that overlap.
I've also been emailing with Anne about how I envy the 1960's, and I always hoped I'd get to live through something similar when the cycle came around again, but instead here I am with a grey beard and it's like the right wing mirror image of the sixties. Here's how I explained it the other day:
What excites me about that time is the mass breaking of barriers in a cultural climate of friendly universalism. Now we've got a breaking of barriers with a climate of hostile tribalism. But if these are the anti-60's, then maybe I can look forward to the anti-80's.
If Trump repeals expanded Medicaid, I just might be homeless in the anti-80's, which would still be better than working at Walmart. But I want to say a little more about tribalism. I define it as finding meaning in belonging to a group which finds meaning in opposition to other groups, and I'm against it. I think it's an obsolete holdover from our prehuman primate ancestors. But it remains part of our nature, and the best we can do is channel it into friendly sports rivalries.
January 3, 2017.
They say 2016 was a bad year, but from now on I expect every year to be worse than the year before, at least by 20th century values where "better" means increasing wealth, security, and rational management. The best we can hope for is that life will start feeling better in ways that are hard to quantify.
I no longer believe in evil, just mistakes, and one of the core mistakes of the modern world is losing touch with the unquantifiable. According to Terence McKenna, young Decartes was visited by an "angel" who told him that the key to conquering nature is number and measure. 400 years later, number and measure have conquered the human soul, to the point where we think we must be crazy to be unhappy when we're surrounded by so many good numbers.
The Hindu trinity is Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. Western culture would say the Destroyer is the bad guy, but really it's all about balance, and what we have right now is an excess of preservation, and probably an excess of creation. I no longer believe in a hard crash, but it's getting to the point where, even if stuff doesn't go away, we just don't have room to care about it.
I don't do new year's resolutions because a resolution loses strength with every failure. Instead I call them points of emphasis, and my point of emphasis for 2017 is micro-scale toughness. It's hard to explain what toughness is. It's like, when the wind blows, a tough person instinctively turns toward the wind instead of away from it. I can do that with big things, but it takes practice to do it with little things.
December 31. The last two nights I had a visitor, Orin, who took Greyhound over from Seattle. One night we took turns playing music, trying to either find something similar to what the other person just played, or something completely different. I want to do this with all my visitors now, and with my hosts if I travel again. Of the songs I played, the one we both liked best was this weird epic about death by a German guy, Get Well Soon - If This Hat Is Missing I Have Gone Hunting, and second place was Big Blood's cover of Vitamin C, oddly another German song. Of the songs he played, my favorite was this inspired vocal layering by Yoko Kanno under the name Gabriela Robin, Green Bird.
Orin also got me back into juggling, which is a good way to keep my energy moving throughout the day, because it doesn't take much space but it uses more of the body than just playing on the computer. My big revelation was that if I listen to music and try to juggle to the beat, I get a visual sense of the tempo from how high I have to throw the bags. My song of the year, No me gustas, te quiero, is hard to juggle with because you have to throw them really high or low and fast, while Hawkwind's Hurry On Sundown has a perfect medium height tempo.
December 29. Aaron mentions the website Surviving Antidepressants, and suggests a radical idea that sounds right to me, that "depression is not a malfunction of the brain but in fact is the brain working as it should." That reminds me of something Gabor Maté says in this video, that people who take illegal drugs are rationally self-medicating.
The deeper problem, obviously, is that modern society doesn't fit human nature, and it seems to be getting worse -- more and more people are struggling to bridge the gap between who they are and what society offers and demands.
I used to think the system would collapse for technical reasons, and now we're watching it collapse for psychological reasons. The weird thing is that nobody is aiming for collapse. When you get down to the scale of one person, one decision, it just looks like people being lazy and stupid. Lazy because a task that's easy when you're excited and engaged, is impossible when you're depressed and afraid. Stupid because the conscious rational mind can't handle the truth: when your life sucks and you can't find a way to make it better, the next move is to make it worse.
How much worse does it get before it gets better? I'll probably write more about this another time. For now I want to post a few late Christmas songs. As always, Steve Mauldin's Abominable O Holy Night, and this oddly fits today's post: by trying to sing worse, he gave a performance that's remarkably alive.
You've all heard Bruce Springsteen's version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," with the different melody in the chorus. Springsteen was copying the 1963 version by The Crystals, and the other day on the radio I heard this version that I like even better, recorded in 1992 by an Australian ABBA tribute band: Bjorn Again - Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.
December 26. A few more links about psychology and society. Via the subreddit, a long reddit post arguing that mental illness comes from our toxic culture, with lots of details including brain-body separation.
A reader sends this four minute video, Dr. Gabor Maté - The Myth of Normal, arguing that preindustrial villages have more room than modern society for people to be weird, and that capitalist culture only values people for what they produce or consume.
Getting smarter: How ant societies point to radical possibilities for humans. We used to think ants were like human industrial society, with central control and strict division of labor. It turns out they use something that programmers call "distributed process":
There, it means that no single unit, such as a router in a data network, knows what all the others are doing and tells them what to do. Instead, interactions between each unit and its local connections add up to the desired outcome.
Another long article, Why time management is ruining our lives:
Personal productivity presents itself as an antidote to busyness when it might better be understood as yet another form of busyness. And as such, it serves the same psychological role that busyness has always served: to keep us sufficiently distracted that we don't have to ask ourselves potentially terrifying questions about how we are spending our days.